I must begin this article by stating that few aspects of Nigeria’s history have held me captive like the coup of January 15 1966. For close to a decade, well after I left university, I have been fascinated by what was to all intent the loss of Nigeria’s political virginity. Representations of that coup in history, memoirs, biographies and fiction draw me like a bone fascinates a dog. The never-ending polemics about the young army officers and their cohorts who threw the First Republic off the cliff is one I love immersing myself in. And it is not just for intellectual orgasm; I believe we Nigerians must identify where and how the rain started beating us, especially the generations that witnessed that period through relays.
Now that we have taken this show on the road permit me to do a little literary gumshoe work. Where is the popular or notorious-depending on your stand in this matter- manuscript attributed to Major Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna? How fares this unpublished work by the man who is regarded in certain circles as the overall leader of the plotters of January 15 1966? Perhaps these posers ought to be in the realm of history but I am convinced that literature will help in unraveling the mystery behind a document which may go a long way in reshaping our ideas and thinking about this amazing piece of estate called Nigeria.
A little background is apt now that our country’s educational system has consigned the knowledge of our past to the pit toilet. Emmanuel Ifeajuna led the Lagos arm of the coup in his capacity as the Brigade Major of the Second Brigade Headquarters of the Nigerian army at that time. His co-plotters were Majors Don Okafor, Adewale Ademoyega, Christian Anuforo and Humphrey Chukwuka. They were outwitted by the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who scuttled the Lagos and entire Southern Nigerian end of the coup. Ifeajuna had a quick dialogue with his legs and took off to Ghana where President Nkrumah sheltered him. There, he supposedly wrote an account of how he and his comrades pierced Nigeria’s hymen.
Much has been made of this manuscript. Some of the best of our quill-wielding lords seem bound up with it: Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, John-Pepple Clark- Bekederemo, Odia Ofeimun, Peter Enahoro and possibly Wole Soyinka., are some of the sparkling earth-shakers who have insights into what the young soldier penned about that day. It is a complex tale and here I can provide but a bare outline.
First, where is the evidence that Ifeajuna wrote anything about the coup? If we go by what Obi Nwakamma wrote in his biography of Chris Okigbo titled ‘Thirsting for Sunlight,’ Ifeajuna handed his memoirs to the controversial Igbo poet and J.P. Clark (as he was then known) before he was arrested by Ironsi’s agents. Both writers were his intimate friends right from their days at the University of Ibadan. Indeed, Ironsi had specifically asked Okigbo to go to Ghana to persuade Ifeajuna to return. Okigbo took Clark along. From all indications both men believed Ironsi had good intentions and would ensure Ifeajuna’s safety. (See Obi Nwakamma. pp.220-221 and Adewale Maja-Pearce’s ‘A Peculiar Tragedy’). Things changed once Ifeajuna landed in Lagos.
Before moving to the logical question; what then became the manuscript’s fate in the hands of Okigbo and Clark, we should find out what exactly it was Ifeajuna wrote. This question is relevant because it is possible a lot of things might have been bandied about in Ifeajuna’s name; on the internet and in books, the most notable being Olusegun Obasanjo’s biography of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, his friend and another famous architect of the coup. Chuks Iloegbunam also published excerpts of the said manuscript in ‘Ironsides: The Biography of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.’ Is it the real thing? How do we know since Ifeajuna is not around to tell us? The answers to both posers are interwoven.
Going by the revelations in the first volume of the literary magazine ‘Lagos Review of Books and Society’ published by Odia Ofeimun, the manuscript came close to becoming a classified document sought feverishly by the state. Michael Jimoh’s review of the magazine does ample justice to this perception: ‘Reading Ofeimun’s account of the Ifeajuna manuscript recalls flipping through a John Le Carre spy thriller: poets (Christopher Okigbo and John Pepple Clark) smuggling Ifeajuna dressed as a woman across the Nigerian/Dahomey (now Benin Republic) border; publishers in Lagos and London turning down said manuscript; invitations by the Special Branch of the Nigerian Police and even planting a relation of the then IG. MD Yusuf, to snoop on the poet (Clark) in his house; manuscript mysteriously disappearing from a baby’s cot in the poet’s house; etc. Lost in transit at one time but recovered somehow the Ifeajuna manuscript is an insider’s account of the five majors’ intention after they shook the political establishment to its very foundation that cold January morning in 1966.’
This quote elicits weighty questions. How did the manuscript reappear after disappearing? Was it taken by the security agencies? How did they know who had it? Did they know Ifeajuna passed off such a hot potato to Clark? How? Was Okigbo the custodian?
Maja-Pearce’s poetic facts only amplify the mystery. Permit me to quote these lines as produced in ‘Kiagbodo,’ a chapter of the book:
Together with Chris I brought him home
On clipped wings, on clipped wings,
He who seeing a forest fire,
Turned on a tap the crocodile
Could not stop, unknown to pilot, to crew,
As plain Fred King. There by the green lights
On the ground the red rug was rolled
From under his feet. Engaged elsewhere was
The horse that should have cantered to the
Crawling now to its place of rest. Instead, came
A donkey to carry into the nigh
King Fred, Chris close at his back,
Sam holding to a restive tail,
And I alone on the tarmac
With odd items to clear,
A number of papers I did not dare declare.
For the uninitiated Clark is saying that when the plane that brought them home landed they were met by Ironsi’s security agents (donkey) instead of an official of the Supreme Military Council. They whisked off Ifeajuna who was followed by a clearly distraught Okigbo. Clark was abandoned on the tarmac with the manuscript which he had not dared ‘declare.’ But that was just the beginning. In metaphorless language Clark continues the tale of the manuscript as reported by Maja-Pearce: ‘I have often wondered over the years what became of this manuscript that I kept at one time in a baby’s cot. When the publisher Longmans chickened out, I handed it over to a brother-in-law to take home to his wife, Rose. I found portions of it later reproduced in General Olusegun Obasanjo’s biography of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.’ Curiouser and curiouser, you may say.
But even more astonishing is what one of the legends of modern Nigerian journalism has to say about the manuscript. Peter Enahoro, popularly known as Peter Pan, was the editor-in-chief of Daily Times. In his memoirs titled ‘Then Spoke the Thunder’ he reveals that he had a copy of the Ifeajuna manuscript which he burnt on July 29, the day the second coup shattered what remained of the Nigerian edifice. Some words out of Enahoro’s mouth are worth repeating here: ‘I had a photocopy of the document in my possession on that day of July 29 when the revenge coup raged savagely. It was given to me to keep after Ifeajuna returned from Accra.’
Who gave Enahoro a copy? Perhaps Okigbo and Clark made copies and circulated them among trusted friends who could act as fallbacks if the heat came. This is just a guess. The radical journalist tells us that on th
e day of the second coup he was phoned with the instruction to burn the manuscript. That action might have lost us a priceless piece of history but it was a safe measure, given the insanity of the times. Enahoro was a known Establishment-basher and if the new guys caught him with anything associated with their archenemy he might have ended up writing newspaper reports from the celestial realm.
In the early days of Biafra Okigbo and Achebe set up the Citadel Press. Okigbo brought a manuscript from Ifeajuna but Achebe rejected it because, in his words, ‘it seemed to be self-serving. Emmanuel was attending a story in which he was a centre and everybody else was marginal. So he was the star of the thing. I did not know what they did or not but reading his account in the manuscript, I thought the author was painting himself as a hero.’ Nzeogwu himself told Okigbo that the poet and Achebe were on the verge of publishing ‘Emma’s lies!’ These revelations made by late Ezenwa-Ohaeto in his biography of Achebe cast the Ifeajuna manuscript in a new light. Was Okigbo pushing forward the original work he and Clark took into custody when their friend was arrested? Perhaps, now he was free in Biafra, Ifeajuna had the opportunity to reflect and rework the manuscript.
But was it a manuscript in the sense of being book material? Enahoro believes Ifeajuna reworked the original. In his words: ‘I do not believe the document I had is an exact copy of what General Obasanjo describes as Ifeajuna’s ‘unpublished work.’ The document that came to me had no pretensions of being a ‘work’; instead it struck me as a hastily written apologia, a mea culpa, essentially intended to impress General Aguiyi-Ironsi. To be sure there was a rushed attempt to explain the background to the failed coup but it did not have the quality of an address to posterity deserving of Obasanjo labeling it an ‘unpublished work.’’ He wrote that Ifeajuna wrote that the plotters intended to hand over to ‘my general.’ (Ironsi?). Maja-Pearce’s book reveals that Ifeajuna penned his defence at a likely court-martial before leaving Ghana. Maybe this is the famed manuscript that was later polished.
I have read the portions of the manuscript quoted by Obasanjo. I came away with these conclusions: Ifeajuna had definite ideas about what he was up to; he was a born rebel; he and his group were out to revolutionize Nigeria with ‘Operation New Wash’, and the plotters were to present their superiors with a ‘fait accompli.’ Nzeogwu did not subscribe to this last line of thought. My reading of Ademoyega’s account of the coup ‘Why We Struck’ does not give me that impression either.
In many essays on the Nigerian socio-political engagement, Odia Ofeimun has often quoted the manuscript to prove that primordial Igbo resentment against political engagement with their Yoruba brothers is not rooted in the country’s modern political history. For Ifeajuna and his colleagues, mostly Igbo, planned to hand over to Obafemi Awolowo. If he refused to cooperate with them they would lock him up in the State House and issue decrees in his name! These were Ifeajuna’s supposed justifications for this intention: ‘Chief Awolowo launched his party (Action Group) on a platform of tribalism, and for his parochial and partisan approach to national issues he deserving (sic) blame. But probably in the later Awolowo of after the 1959 Federal election that began the fiasco, our people saw for a second time an image of honesty, courage and discipline…In time he came to win the respect and admiration of even his greatest detractors, and what was more, he came to represent a rallying point for the young and the intellectual, for all that sought progress and nationhood for our country.’ Noble sentiments for a coup which has been labeled a bloodthirsty, tribally-motivated take-over bid. But are they Ifeajuna’s words or those of his friends put in Ifeajuna’s mouth?
For the sake of Nigeria’s nation building project the Ifeajuna manuscript should be published. It should emerge from its anthill so that the truth about January 15 will be known. I plead with our literary grandees-Achebe, Clark, Enahoro and Ofeimun-to pull the necessary strings. If the members of the Ifeajuna family can help, they should be reached. Nigerians need to know how and why Ifeajuna and Co. took off to hell along a road paved with good intentions.